Veteran’s Day (Armistice Day for you non-Americans out there) is fast approaching. I thought I could share some memories of my favorite veteran, Grandpa, and our joint experiences recording and remembering his past, transforming his personal life into family history.
As a child, I only saw my paternal Grandparents once a year or so because we lived so far apart. Their visits, however, meant walks home from school, Grandma’s famous French toast, and, especially, Grandpa’s stories. Grandpa, who passed away in May, spent roughly twenty years in the navy straddling World War Two. I wanted to know all about it. My love of Grandpa’s personal stories never waned, either.
Grandpa’s stories were short, self-contained, and generally had a lesson of some sort. Occasionally, a punch line. They were not all completely true, but as he said, at his age nobody could tell him that he was wrong . As I got older, I became increasingly aware that the stories contained little flesh. They were parables, full of simple lessons espoused by a man who was quite wise but never completed high school. Of course, this did not bother me as a child. I grew up, however, and my historical training matured. I wanted more. Grandpa told stories. I wanted history.
I encouraged Grandpa to write his stories down. He had serious trouble typing. A destroyer captain’s failure to sound the warning bells before firing depth charges led to the partial loss of two of his fingers. Thankfully, the destroyer squadron’s lone physician was on his ship. The men he commanded later determined that if he pointed at you with his good hand, you were all right, but if he pointed with his finger nub, you were in deep trouble. The real reason he did not write down his stories, though, was a lack of interest. He was a storyteller. I was busy conjuring up Tolkien-esque stories at the age of ten with dreams of becoming a famous author. I could not understand how anyone could desire not to record such good stuff.
The one element Grandpa’s stories never included were people. His stories were full of individuals, of course, but they were never people. Even those who he loved never received proper development. Undoubtedly, this situation was due to two factors: first, Grandpa never wanted to say anything bad about anybody. The captain directly responsible for Grandpa’s damaged hand (which could have killed him) was simply new to the job. He was a good man. One of Grandpa’s favorite sayings was “a compliment doesn’t cost you anything,” and it is one I try to remember although I am not as successful as he was. However, it is impossible to flesh out a character without criticism. Second, his stories were all self-contained. I only knew anything about the repeating characters because I was related to them.
My Grandparents traveled by plane for the last time to attend my college graduation. One of my favorite undergraduate professors had recently completed and published a small monograph that came from a family history he conducted on his own far from his nominal area of expertise. Feeling inspired, I sat down with Grandpa and an old cassette recorder that required a constant change of batteries and interviewed him. I kept my questions simple and many of the stories were the old standards. I did take the opportunity to pry a little deeper, though, and I learned some new things. For example, Grandpa, born in the United States, knew almost nothing about his parents’ homeland in the Russian Empire; they wanted to forget those dark memories. He listened to the UN vote on Israel in 1948 on the radio. He observed some of the little changes that came with the desegregation of the armed forces while stationed in North Carolina. I would have liked to interview Grandma too, but she had no interest. Grandpa was the storyteller. I still got my French toast before they returned home.
I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing my grandfather but I had no idea how much it meant to him until a few weeks later. He informed me and my father that he intended to record his memoirs. My cousin set him up with a cassette recorder – as befitting a storyteller, he intended to record them orally – and Grandpa began talking. He enjoyed it so much that Grandma complained to me on several occasions that, instead of spending time with her, “he’s always talking to that stupid machine.” He joined a memoir-writing group at his retirement community and proudly noted that while everyone else read their printed-out papers, everyone looked forward to Grandpa playing his tapes. I believed him.
Grandpa wanted me and my father to type up and publish his memoirs. Unfortunately, much as I pushed him to flesh out the stories, to look back more and not just re-state the outlines of his memories, the stories were little different than what I enjoyed growing up. There were just more of them. They remain an important part of my family history, but they are not memoirs. Because he dedicated himself to the project, he covered a lot more ground than he ever had during his weeklong trips to visit us. He reached 1950s by the time Grandma got sick and the project was put on indefinite hold.
In order to encourage him to pursue something more akin to a memoir than a series of short stories, albeit in a manner that would still fit his style, I suggested to Grandpa that he start a new tape and not worry about chronological order. He should of all the important people in his life and describe everything he could about them. He never got around to it. He was more concerned about remembering stories that he had missed earlier. My father and I assured him that we could always fix the order. Having the stories was most important.
During my last visit that included new tapes, Grandpa announced that he had something he wanted me to listen to. I did not know it yet, but it was also the last tape he recorded before Grandma’s illness and his worries overwhelmed his time and his energy. He hit the play button, and I heard his voice saying, “How did I get to be ninety….” It was, finally, something that one outside the family might consider interesting enough to listen to (not to say worthy, a word choice that would devalue what his memories mean to us, his family). What I heard was not quite candid introspection, but instead emotional reflection. His answers on reaching such an advanced age in such good health – primarily good, loving family – would surprise nobody who knew him. I could imagine the short monologue as the pinnacle of the various stories thrown together, all the little life lessons rolled into one. He could have said that all the different individuals – fleshed out or not – and all the different stories thrown together make up a man’s life (he did not say this). He would have agreed that a man defines himself by his actions in life – his stories – and the family surrounding him. How did he get to be ninety? Good family. Loving family.
After burying all of his siblings, Grandpa prided himself on being the patriarch of the family. All of the grandchildren (and grandnieces and grandnephews) graduated from college. Three beautiful great-grandchildren. With some harrowing experiences in his past, Grandpa loved how everyone in the family got along and were willing to trust each other. The memoir project itself was a family project drawing in his son and two grandchildren. We have taken Grandpa’s lessons to heart and made them our own. My father and I fancy ourselves storytellers to some extent, although I make my home in the distant past. My father does not enjoy telling his own stories as much as Grandpa did, but he has no qualms about telling stories about other people, especially his children. The kinds of embarrassing stories that Grandma and Grandpa were, sadly, never willing to tell my brother and me.
Grandpa added one more story to his queue of standards late in life. Even though the other retirees enjoyed his spoken works, they encouraged Grandpa to beef up his stories. Not the same way I prodded him to, though. “They told me I should embellish my stories more,” Grandpa liked to say, slowing down and emphasizing embellish. “I looked up the word embellish in the dictionary. Do you know what it means? It means to lie.” A simple yet powerful message. And, as always, a simple truism.
 I know which stories are not completely true, and I’m not telling you.
 I know that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, but Grandpa loved to expound upon the difference between hearing and listening. He wanted me to listen.